The first chapter of Heidegger's An Introduction to Metaphysics is titled "The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics." It was one of a series of lectures first delivered in 1935 and then revised in 1953. Aestheticians have long been interested in Heidegger's discussion of a painting of shoes by Van Gogh which appears in his "The Origin of the Work of Art" which also was drafted between 1935 and 1937 and was also re-edited in 1950 and again in 1960. So it is not surprising that Van Gogh's painting also appears in "The Fundamental Question." It is a short passage and it, of course, serves a somewhat different purpose than in the other essay. I am working here from the Ralph Manheim translation (Yale University Press, 1959). Here is the quote:
"A painting by Van Gogh. A pair of rough peasant shoes, nothing else. Actually the painting represents nothing. But as to what is in that picture, you are immediately alone with it as though you yourself were making your way wearily homeward with your hoe on an evening in late fall after the last potato fires have died down. What is here? The canvas? The brush strokes? The spots of color?" (35)
The point at issue in this passage is not the nature or origin or the work of art. Rather Heidegger is interested in the question of being. A few paragraphs earlier he asks "Wherein lies and wherein consists being?" The question is also reformulated as "Wherein consists its being?" when referring to a heavy storm "coming up in the mountains." The next few paragraphs cover a "mountain range under a broad sky," "the door of any early romanesque church," and "a state," all before we get to Van Gogh case. After this Heidegger asks "what in all these things we have just mentioned is the being of the essent [thing]?" In each case there are a lot of questions, and it is not at all clear what Heidegger is intending to say or how he would answer these questions. Aesthetic issues play a role in some of these cases, but not all, and they are not dominant. When discussing the mountain range, he does consider that it might reveal itself to the traveler who "enjoys the landscape" but also to the meteorologist preparing a weather report. And he also considers that each of these may only be an aspect of the object and Being may be either be behind these aspects or in them.
In the Van Gogh paragraph Heidegger assumes, as in "Origin," that we are looking at peasant shoes. (It has been argued that these are actually Van Gogh's own shoes.) The sentence fragment that opens the paragraph seems to indicate that we are concerned here with the being of the painting, not of the shoes. So we have him ask "wherein consists being in the painting?" He says that the painting "represents nothing" although that is odd since it represents peasant shoes. The next sentence also refers not to what we would ordinarily think of as the being of the painting but rather to the experiences of a particularly imaginative viewer of the painting. What "is" in the picture turns out to be related to how the picture is experienced by this imaginative viewer. To repeat: "you are immediately alone with it [being] as though you yourself were making your way wearily homeward with your hoe...." The imaginative viewer imagines being a very specific peasant at a certain time of day and year. Somehow this is in the experience of the painting, or in the painting, or the Being in the painting. The end of the paragraph comes as an even greater surprise since, after asking "What is here?" i.e. in the panting we have additional questions, which are also possible answers, and which actually refer to the physical substances of the painting: "The canvas? The brush strokes? The spots of color?" It is being suggested here that the being is encountered through the imaginative viewing of the painting, but is also there on the canvas, and in the brush strokes.
The rest of the essay has its own disturbing nature. Heidegger has joined the Nazi party two years previously, and, although he resigned from the Rectorship of his university in 1934 he continued to be a member of the party until the end of WWII. Moreover, in the essay he makes some pronounced political statements, mostly pro-German and anti both American and Russian.
He spends some pages worrying over a comment by Nietzsche that "Being" is a "high concept" that is also "the last cloudy streak of evaporating reality." Nietzsche even refers to Being as an "error," this in The Twilight of Idols. Heidegger takes Nietzsche to be saying something more like that Being is seen by people today as a mere vapor: sure the word is empty but it is no fault of the word. Rather, we have "fallen out of" Being, and without knowing it. Being, he suggests, is not a mere word but "the spiritual destiny of the Western world."
It is odd today to take seriously notions of the spiritual destiny of the Western world, as though the Western world is all that important. I know all about the ideas of a history of the West, one which sees Europe as central. But, being a Californian, living in a multi-ethnic community, and teaching students from all countries in the 21st. century, it just doesn't make any sense to me to worry about the spiritual destiny of the Western world any more than it makes sense for me to worry about the spiritual destiny of Germany. I could see a German worrying about that, just as I can see myself worrying about the spiritual destiny of America. But I am not sure that the spiritual destiny of America, if there is such, is any closer to the spiritual destiny of Europe than it is to that of Humanity or The World. Let's just say we feel a special affinity to Europe.
Of course Heidegger would not be sympathetic, partly because he already has a role for America to play in his story: "This Europe, in its ruinous blindness forever on the point of cutting its own throat, lies today in a great pincers, squeezed between Russia on the one side and America on the other." (37) And in a few short years Europe (by which he mainly means Germany) is fighting both. America and Russia are the sources of spiritual decline.
This is not to say that he has no enduring insight. He associates America and Russia with something that is still problematic today: "the same dreary technological frenzy, the same unrestricted organization of the average man....and time as history has vanished from the lives of all peoples" (37-38) The illness he associates with America and Russia is actually just universal, taking in German and Europe every bit as much as every other part of our civilized world. Set aside the mistake about Germany (at least the Germany of his time) it might still be worthwhile to look for "new spiritual energies unfolding historically from out of the center." (39) We just need to reinterpret "the center."
Of course the bigger issue is how to interpret "spiritual."